Rice's fossil pit remembered in Hampton lecture

— The first time Jane Rice ventured down into her in-laws' borrow pit off Harris Creek Road she was a recent bride who had little inkling about the extraordinary environment she was about to enter.

Stepped terraces descended dozens of feet into the earth, carved out by excavators in constant search of fill. And the giant hole they left could be measured by the acre.

Just as impressive as this massive resculpting of the landscape were the seemingly endless veins of fossils that the tireless machines had revealed. So ancient and spectacular were the finds to be made at Rice's fossil pit that it became a mecca for both school kids and scientists from around the world.

Many of them felt the same sense of wonder that Rice will recall in a 7 p.m. Monday talk at the Hampton History Museum.

"To me, it was always like walking back through time into the prehistoric era," says Rice, who accompanied her mother-in-law into the pit almost every day for an evening stroll.

"When you looked around, it was almost unbelievable. It was like being in a different world."

Purchased in two tracts during the 1940s, the nearly 18-acre expanse represented a new beginning for William Macon Rice, who had just come from the Lynchburg area with his bride, Madeline, to work as a welder at the Newport News shipyard.

In 1943 he built a frame bungalow on the site, which consisted mostly of wooded marshland. A few years later he left his job to go into business for himself digging and hauling fill to such large construction projects as the Lunar Landing Research Facility at NASA Langley and the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel.

Not until the fall of 1960, however, did Rice make the discovery that singled out his growing pit and its constant stream of fossils as something that warranted extra attention.

Digging through the sandy, shell-filled fill with an excavator, he unearthed the first bone of what would turn out to be a 60-foot-long prehistoric whale.

"He was from Lynchburg, so he never thought all the shells and fossils he saw were so unusual. He thought everybody around here had them," his daughter-in-law says.

"But when he hit that giant rib bone, he knew it was something special."

Just how special can be seen in the response of Smithsonian Institution geologist Frank C. Whitmore Jr., who arrived with a field team not long after hearing about the discovery from The Mariners' Museum.

Using a bulldozer blade to haul away more than 60 heavy bones, the group carried the find back to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. There it remained for more than 50 years before Whitmore published a 2002 paper hailing the discovery as a new whale species — then naming it "Balaena ricei" after its Hampton donors.

Less than a decade later, Smithsonian scientists returned to recover the bones of another whale that also puzzled experts for decades. Just last year, however, it appeared in a study published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, where co-author Nicholas D. Pyenson described it as not just another new species but also one that broadened the range of certain prehistoric whales from the Arctic to the East Coast.

"These things sat on a museum shelf for a long time. But they were molded and cast and then sent around to other museums because people knew they were important," the Smithsonian curator of fossil marine mammals says.

"What the Rices didn't know 40 years ago was that somebody would finally come along and make a discovery like this from something that was found in their pit. And there are probably a lot of other discoveries waiting to be made from other material found there, too."

Perhaps the family's most enthusiastic fossil hunter was their youngest son, Kenneth, who died in an accident there in 1966.

Less than a year later his parents opened a memorial museum in his honor, adding to the attraction of a landmark that drew thousands of teachers, school children, fossil hunters and scientists every year.

Hampton school kids were among the most frequent visitors, but they also came from as far away as Charlottesville, which one year sent "15 Greyhound busloads," the Rices' daughter-in-law recalls.